If you’re arrested in Philadelphia and cannot afford a lawyer, there’s a good chance you’ll be represented by a public defender from the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The Defender Association, which provides free legal representation to roughly 70 percent of people arrested in the city, is a far cry from the stereotype of frazzled public defenders rushing through massive caseloads.
Here, public defenders aren’t only focused on trial advocacy and legal strategy; they work side by side with social workers and social service advocates to identify deeper needs of their clients and tap into broader social service and community support to address the root cause of their conviction.
“We build an argument for why a client should get services,” as opposed to incarceration, explains Keisha Hudson, chief defender for the Defender Association. “We’re looking at clients holistically, and saying that we’re going to do what we can to connect them to the services they need. The hope is that we’re doing that, and in the court process the case can be disposed of.”
The Defender Association provides “client centered and community oriented” public defense—akin to what’s known as “holistic” defense, something that is starting to spread to other jurisdictions in the state, including Delaware County. That it is not more common is in part because of a shameful fact about Pennsylvania: It is “consistently ranked at the bottom for indigent defense,” according to the ACLU. Pennsylvania, in fact, is the only state that provides no funding for public defenders, meaning the budget is determined by each of its 67 counties.
While this kind of defense is not a cure-all for increasing public safety, a groundbreaking 2019 study found the practice has considerable potential to reduce incarceration — along with the associated financial and social costs — without compromising safety. To be truly effective, defenders and researchers say, more funding is needed to make holistic defense wider spread, so that reform is distributed more equitably between defense and progressive district attorneys, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner.
“We should be leading, or have at least as powerful a voice, as police and prosecution on reimagining public safety,” Hudson explains. “If we’re truly to reform the criminal justice system, we have to recognize that public defenders play an important role and really understand what is going to work in prevention and intervention.”
“Is there any way we can do this better?”
The Defender Association of Philadelphia was created in 1934 by a group of lawyers who believed in high-quality legal services for indigent criminal defendants, 29 years prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, which guarantees that every person accused of a crime has the right to an attorney for their defense, regardless of ability to pay.
The Association has received city and grant support to grow and provide increasingly holistic defense through a network of support services. Its work is aligned with so-called “holistic defense,” which goes even further to include things like civil legal aid support.
Crucially, the Association’s team isn’t just lawyers — which is typical for public defense offices — but also includes social workers, investigators and paralegals. There are also “bail advocates,” working to understand the defendant’s needs before their trial, connecting them with community-based services like housing, food, jobs and healthcare. Attorneys and social workers also work together to connect clients with mental health and substance use issues to treatment alternatives.
The Defenders Association says that a study found that between September 2016 and January 2017, over 150 of their clients were provided with same-day referrals to community-based treatment providers — with only three clients returning to custody.
The expanded support model is a key component of holistic defense, according to Paul Heaton, academic director of Penn Law School Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, who co-authored the 2019 report. Last year, Heaton authored a paper about the impact of the bail advocate pilot led by the Defenders Association. (Research has shown that decisions on granting bail disproportionately impact the poorest defendants and result in unequal, racial outcomes that can launch a defendant on a path to recidivism.) He found that bail advocates reduced future arrests by an estimated 26 percent, with a proven effectiveness in reducing racial disparities for pretrial detention.
“In achieving a lot of the goals that people who are pushing social justice and equity issues — allowing for more investments in communities, reducing the size and the scope of the system, reducing pretrial incarceration — the research suggests that public defenders can be quite valuable in accomplishing that,” Heaton says.
“People have to be held accountable, but if we’re not doing something about the underlying issues, we’re just a conveyor belt,” says Delco DA Jack Stollsteimer.
Holistic and community-centered defense needs more investment and study to understand its full impact. “We want to have a broader community discussion about what we’re trying to achieve” through holistic defense, Heaton says. It is also not a single solution to improving public safety, reducing mass incarceration and ending the stark disparities of the criminal legal system. The 2019 study found that, while holistic defense reduced incarceration days and the likelihood of prison sentences, it did not dramatically reduce recidivism.
There is also a limit to how far this work can go. In Philly, the proposed 2023 city budget to support the Defenders Association is approximately $48 million. (Hudson testified before City Council this week to advocate for more.) The proposed city budget to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate someone is nearly $1 billion: $727 million for the police, $40.4 million to the district attorney and $231 million to jails and prisons. On top of that, the district attorney, police and prison system receive state funding, while public defense does not.
This speaks to a disconnect in how we have approached criminal justice reform. As a progressive prosecutor, Krasner has pitched himself as a reformer, intent on reducing incarceration (including through bail reform). That is a new role for prosecutors in America, and in some ways makes sense: DA’s, after all, have the power to file charges (or not), seek bail (or not) and prosecute cases (or not).
But reforming prosecution alone is not enough to create the kind of long-term change needed in Philadelphia, the most heavily-incarcerated city in America. For one thing, prosecutorial policies change with the person holding the office, which could make reform tentative, if Philly elects a more traditional district attorney with a more heavy-handed approach to prosecution.
“We need to hold people accountable and find justice — and also make sure the system is as fair as possible,” says Delaware County’s progressive prosecutor Jack Stollsteimer. “If you have a public defender who’s looking to reform the system, and a prosecutor who’s looking to do it, that’s fine. Everyone in public service should be progressive, with an eye to asking is there any way we can do this better?”
A vital component to less incarceration
Additional funding for the Defenders Association would allow the organization to partner with Partners for Justice, a national nonprofit that has emerged as the main player advocating for and demonstrating the impact of holistic defense — which is now starting to make their mark in Pennsylvania.
The organization began working in 2018 to train non-attorney advocates to provide clients with case navigation and wraparound support, while helping public defenders protect people from incarceration and other criminal penalties. In a sample survey, Partners for Justice found that 77 percent of attorneys had a case dropped, dismissed or resolved without conviction due to support from non-attorney advocates. The organization estimates that it has eliminated over 200 years in jail through its work, yielding over $6 million in taxpayer savings.
The work, says Emily Galvin Almanza, founder and co-executive director of Partners for Justice, involves “partnering with a person in crisis, learning deeply and confidentially about their fears, struggles, hopes, goals and potential, and figuring out how you as counsel — a counselor to them — can bring about success and protect them from harm. The defender knows what the accused person really needs to stop harmful behavior, or break a harmful cycle, or not come back into the criminal legal system.”
This year Partners for Justice teamed up with the Delaware County’s Office of the Public Defenders for its Non-Attorney Advocates Program to provide the office with five advocates to help build a network of local services, community organizations and civil attorneys that can both support the public defenders and their clients. It marks Partners for Justice’s first partnership in the state.
“In Delaware County, they’ve seen the benefit of moving our criminal justice system away from completely carceral, toward jail and punishment, and more toward a rehabilitative where that’s possible,” says Chris Welsh, director of Delaware County’s Public Defender’s Office. “They’ve recognized that to do that, the public defender is a vital component to what a less carceral county can look like.”
“Opportunities, economic mobility, educational attainment, housing security are all the things we know factor back into public safety,” says Galvin Almanza.
Beyond providing direct advocacy to clients, Partners for Justice will provide training to Delco’s staff and help them with “system mapping” to better understand their client’s needs. “They can help us identify the needs of the criminal justice-involved population and where the county is adequately addressing those needs and where it can do more work,” Welsh says. If many clients are housing insecure, for example, public defenders will know to advocate for better housing and homelessness resources.
This has the potential to get to the root cause of many crimes. “All of these people we see are suffering from a cascade of issues — drug addiction, poverty, mental health issues and lack of educational advancement. People have to be held accountable, but if we’re not doing something about the underlying issues, we’re just a conveyor belt,” says Stollsteimer, who is waiting to see how well the program works in Delaware County before passing judgment on its efficacy. Still, he says: “It’s a smart approach. I hope it will pay off.”
As for Philly, Galvin Almanza says Partners for Justice is in talks to help bolster the Defenders Association’s holistic defense work but funds will need to come together to do so.
“The more resources that come into public defense, the more things defenders can do to improve outcomes for their clients, opportunities, economic mobility, educational attainment, housing security,” she says. “These are all the things we know factor back into public safety.”